Why Do Ants Have Wings?

Looking at winged ants can be a bit startling for a lot of us. After all, ants are supposed to be crawling on the ground not to be flying around. Or are they?

Flying ants are actually quite a normal thing in the ant world as they are a part of the standard ant life cycle. Almost all ant species have winged members and only very few don’t. Ants with wings aren’t more “dangerous” than other ants in any way but they do signify the further spreading of ant colonies. So, whether you encounter black ants with wings or flying red ants, here’s we’ll explain what that indicates.

Why do ants have wings?

Certain members of an ant colony are born with wings and take flight about once per year – usually in the spring or the summer, depending on the species. As the Society of Biology points out, for example, black garden ants tend to do this in July or August.

ant with wings

Cristina Romero Palma/Shutterstock.com

The reason ants do this is to spread to new locations and start colonies there. The winged members of an ant colony are female queen ants and male “drone” ants. The former fly as far as they can to seek suitable nesting locations and start attracting males for mating there. The male drones themselves also try to fly as far away as they can to avoid mixing with similar genetic materials and when they hear the call of a female queen – they go to do their job.

Once a male drone delivers his genetic material to an available queen ant he will die shortly – within days or several weeks at most. Male drone ants have the shortest lifespan of all ant types as breeding is their only purpose in life. They are also much more numerous than females so when you encounter a winged ant on a window or somewhere else than it most probably is either a male searching for a queen to mate with or a male that’s already done his job and is “retired”.

If the winged ant you notice is significantly larger, then it is probably a queen. If you happen to encounter it in your home or on your property and you don’t want an ant colony to sprout there a week after, killing said queen might be a good idea. However, more often than not, the winged ants you encounter will be harmless males.

Do all ants have wings?

The vast majority of an ant colony are wingless workers. All worker ants are technically female but neither of them is a queen ant, neither of them is capable of reproducing, and neither of them has had or will have wings.

There are also several species of ants that don’t have any winged members at all. Instead, these ants reproduce by “budding”. Essentially, both the female ant queens and the male drones crawl to new nest locations instead of flying there. This is a much less effective strategy, however, as it’s slower, it limits the distance these ants can cover before they mate and/or die, and it also leaves them even more exposed to predators.

Even flying ants are quite vulnerable to predators, however. The reason such high numbers of male drones and female queens are released from each nest every year is precisely because the majority of them will either be killed and eaten by birds and dragonflies or will simply starve to death before they manage to mate. Only a few make it but once they do, the queens are fast to start reproducing. Once they start nesting, the queens will shed their wings and never fly again.

How to tell the difference between winged ants and termites?

One annoying part of the fact that some ants fly is that it makes them hard to distinguish from termites. As termites are one of most maligned house pests, many homeowners have learned the hard way to be extra cautious every time they see a winged ant-like insect around their property.

Ants themselves can be harmful to our homes as carpenter ants, like termites, tend to chew wood and dig tunnels through our homes’ walls and foundations. There are quite a bit of difference between termites, carpenter ants, and regular ants, however, and as annoying as carpenter ants are, they are much easier to deal with than termites.

So, what are the differences between carpenter ants with wings and termites?

For one, termites are actually members of the cockroach family. In fact, carpenter ants are known to prey on termites, so at the very least the two species of pests are at war with each other.

flying termite

skynetphoto/Shutterstock.com

In terms of appearances, they can look quite similar, however. Both winged carpenter ants and termites have a similar body size and both insects have long wings. They are distinguishable nonetheless, however, so here are a few pointers:

  • Termites have straight antennae while carpenter ants and most other ants have elbowed antennae.
  • Termites have much longer wings – usually twice as long as ants’ wings. Additionally, both pairs of termite wings are equal in length, while the frontal wings of winged ants are longer than the hind wings.
  • Carpenter ants and all other ants have slender waists while termites have broad waists as they are members of the cockroach family.
  • As termites consume the wood they chew through they leave less evidence of their presence. Carpenter ants, on the other hand, leave piles of wood dust around their holes as they don’t consume the wood itself.

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